Many of the core values and behaviors we carry through our lives are developed in childhood, and while sometimes we try to give our children some kind of "experience" that they will carry with them, I believe the more important influences may actually be unintended.
My parents didn't spend a couple of years taking me to Martinsburg, W.Va. every weekend to shape my lifelong attitude toward food, but it did influence my perspective on food, as well as other things.
Of all the places I've never lived, Martinsburg influenced me more than any other.
Back when I was around eight years old my parents moved to Silver Spring, Md. We'd lived in Silver Spring before and after an odd ten-month stint in Alabama, we moved back.
The whole back and forth was a little discombobulating at the time. I was too young to understand the adult dynamics behind the moves. They really don't matter now, but suffice it to say at the time we moved back to Silver Spring, my dad didn't have a job.
He started selling life insurance, which was also strange, since he was a longtime preacher. And then one day it was announced to us kids that he was going to start preaching at a little church in Martinsburg.
But we weren't moving to Martinsburg. I think my dad would have liked to move to Martinsburg, but my mother was having none of it. So he kept selling life insurance during the week and we traveled to Martinsburg every weekend.
Picky eating wasn't allowed in our home. If it was on your plate, you ate it. Even if it was cottage cheese with cling peaches on top and you thought it was nasty. But this directive -- eat whatever is in front of you -- was even further enforced when we were in public, i.e. at someone else's home.
The preacher's family was expected to be models of good, and polite, behavior. We were admonished many times that whatever was served to us, we were to eat it -- and happily!
To me, at least, this was mostly not a burden. I didn't give too much thought to the situation. I was ever an obedient child.
I think most of those admonishments were meant for my sister, who was known to spend hours after dinner at home sitting with untouched peas on her plate, tears running down her face and a stubborn set to her mouth, in a battle with my father over her vegetables.
Me, I just scraped those peas onto the spoon, popped them in my mouth, and scampered off to play before it got dark. I couldn't understand all the drama, and I had other stuff to do.
Food in Martinsburg, however, was something outside my mother's usual dinner table repertoire.
Since my father was the visiting preacher -- even though his "visiting" went on for a couple of years -- the members of the church considered it a favor for him to come every weekend to preach and help the church get back on its feet. So the congregation took it upon themselves to take care of his family, the way country people take care of people.
Every Sunday after church, a different family took us home for Sunday lunch. The majority of the homes we visited for these Sunday lunches were out in the country. They had huge gardens and their tables groaned with plates and platters and bowls of vegetables and fruits and casseroles and meats, desserts and cakes and pies. It was like a holiday feast every week.
Some foods were weird to me, like rhubarb or okra, things my mother didn't cook at home. And because we were at a different family's home every week, things would be prepared and served in different ways, week after week after week.
Without those Sunday dinners I wouldn't have been exposed to the different families' tastes and favorites and "weird" preferences, especially at such a young age when most of the time you're just eating your mom's cooking.
It was also a great exposure to home cooking from scratch, beyond the cooking my mother did at home. My mother loved to cook and she baked a lot, but she also enjoyed her suburban life and the grocery store and convenience foods upon occasion.
There were no convenience foods at these Sunday farm lunches.
As I said, I was never a picky eater to begin with, but this constant exposure to different foods was an experience I've never forgotten. It left me with an enthusiasm, curiosity, and adventurous attitude toward food that I've carried with me over my life.
It's not something my parents set out to give me, or that they probably thought much about, other than hoping their children weren't going to embarrass them at the table.
My parents were in the midst of their own transitional period, muddling through the messy middle of their own lives, trying to keep it together and figure out what they were going to do next. Eventually, my dad quit selling life insurance and got a full-time preaching job closer to home.
We continued to live in Silver Spring until I was in high school, when we moved to California. Martinsburg became a distant memory, other than the little church bulletin that came in the mail once a week for years to follow.
We never went back to Martinsburg but every time I try a new recipe or eagerly reach for some new food that I've never tasted before, I know Martinsburg is still with me. And whenever I'm muddling through the messy middle of my own life, I know -- or at least hope -- that my children, too, are learning something that might surprise me.
Sometimes that's the very best thing about messy middles. There's always an unexpected sweet surprise in there somewhere.
Suzanne McMinn lives in Roane County, where she writes every day in her blog, chickensintheroad.com.